The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Gift guide or gift or both? Critics for The New York Times name their top classical recordings of 2018, and so does National Public Radio (NPR)

December 22, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is “Panic Saturday” — another, newer theme day on the commerce-driven Holiday Consumer Calendar that goes along with Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber-Monday and Giving Tuesday. 

In past years, by this time many media outlets would publish the list of the top classical recordings of the past year. And The Ear has offered them as holiday shopping guides with links to the lists.

They seem to be running late this year, probably too late for many shoppers.

But recently the team of critics for The New York Times named their Top 25 classical recordings of 2018 that run from the 15th century to today (sample album covers are below).

This time, the website didn’t just reproduce something that first appeared in the printed edition. And something more than small snippets or excerpts are offered.

This time, the newspaper took full advantage of the electronic possibility of the web and used streaming to add hours of sound samples — some as long as 40 minutes – so you can see what you think of the recordings before you buy them. (Be sure to look at reader reactions and comments.)

It is a new and innovative way to do a Top 25 list – very appealing or entertaining as well as informative. Even if you don’t use it to buy anything for others or yourself, it can provide many minutes of listening pleasure. You can think of it as a gift guide or a gift or both.

Of course, there are also the usual short and very readable, to-the-point narratives or explanations about why the recording stands out and what makes it great music, a great performance or a great interpretation.

So there is a lot to listen to and help you make up your mind. The Ear has enjoyed it and found it helpful, and hopes you do too, whether you agree or disagree with the choice:

Here is a link:

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/13/arts/music/best-classical-music-tracks-2018.html

Since this is the last weekend for holiday shopping before Christmas, here is the previous list – notice the duplications in the two lists — posted here, which was of the nominations for the upcoming 2019 Grammy Awards:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2018/12/08/classical-music-here-are-the-just-announced-grammy-nominations-for-2019-they-can-serve-as-a-great-holiday-gift-guide/

And here is the Top 10 list, which was chosen by the always discerning Tom Huizenga (below) — who explains the reasons for his choices — and which also offers generous sound samples, from National Public Radio (NPR) and its Deceptive Cadence blog. Also look for duplications:

https://www.npr.org/2018/12/18/677776208/npr-musics-best-classical-albums-of-2018

What recordings would you suggest? 

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Want to know how professional musicians practice? For the next 100 days on Instagram, violin virtuoso Hilary Hahn will show you

August 13, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Many listeners and many amateur musicians often wonder: How do professionals do it? How do they practice to prepare for a performance? And what goes on in the practice rooms (below) of major conservatories and schools of music where tomorrow’s professionals study?

Of course the usual advice is to play slowly, to repeat difficult sections and to break a larger piece down into smaller parts.

But it is one thing to be told what to do, and another thing to see professionals follow their own advice and put it into practice. The Ear finds that it often inspires him to work harder and better, and more efficiently and satisfyingly.

Many performers seem reluctant to show up what goes into a career, to show the hard work of practicing that leads to apparently effortless performing.

Not Hilary Hahn (below, in a  photo by Peter Miller), the outstanding violin virtuoso who has performed several times at the Wisconsin Union Theater in some of the finest programs The Ear has ever heard.

Recently Hahn, the thoughtful three-time Grammy Award winner, started a series called #100daysofpractice on her Instagram account called “Hilary Hahn’s Violincase.” It is worth subscribing to for the short one-minute videos.

It is fascinating to see such a gifted professional slowing down passages of concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach and Jean Sibelius – music Hahn already knows intimately and has recorded — and to hear and appreciate how she continues to practice making hard leaps, negotiating difficult transitions, adjusting bowing, correcting off-pitches and finding difficult fingering and hand positions.

If you haven’t seen and heard it for yourself, treat yourself. You will learn a lot that will help you to appreciate the physicality of making music and perhaps even help you to play it better yourself.

Here is a link: https://www.instagram.com/violincase/

And there is another sample in the YouTube video at the bottom:

What do you think?

Do you know of other sites on the web and social media that document professional musicians practicing? If so, please leave the address in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Why do symphony orchestras program so few women composers – and often none?

July 26, 2018
8 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The summer is rolling along.

Soon August will be here, and then September with the new concert season.

Looking over the programs, which feature new music and living composers, for the next season at the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (WCO), The Ear was reminded of a recent story.

It came from National Public Radio (NPR) and was about why so few women composers – or even no women composers – are being programmed at major national and regional symphony orchestras.

One major exception is Jennifer Higdon (below), the Curtis Institute teacher who has won a Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy Award, who has been performed by the MSO and who is quoted in the story.

Here is a link to the story:

https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2018/06/19/617136805/the-sound-of-silence-female-composers-at-the-symphony

Now, The Ear likes the 2018-19 season at the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below) for many reasons he will go into another time. He thinks it is a big improvement over last year, probably because it also celebrates the 25th anniversary of John DeMain’s tenure as the artistic director. And it does open with the “Fanfare Ritmico” by Jennifer Higdon. But you still won’t find major works by Higdon or other women composers.

Here is a link:

https://www.madisonsymphony.org/18-19

And the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) also has an interesting and appealing season that includes some unusual features, including a recorder soloist and a repeat performance of a two-piano concerto that the WCO commissioned and premiered a couple of seasons ago. But, again, there are no women composers:

https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performance-listing/category/2018-19-season

The UW Symphony Orchestra, which last year performed a work by Caroline Shaw (below), hasn’t yet released its new schedule of programs.

If The Ear’s memory is correct, certain local chamber music and vocal groups — the Willy Street Chamber Players and the Oakwood Chamber Players come to mind — do a better job at programming works by women and composers of color, although there is still room to improve.

And it sure seems to The Ear that Wisconsin Public Radio has started to make a concerted effort to program more works by women.

What do you make of the lack of women composers?

Would you like to see more works by women composers programmed — say, Higdon’s violin and viola concertos? (You can hear the slow second movement of the Violin Concerto with Hilary Hahn in the YouTube video at the bottom.) 

Do you think programming more women composers would boost, lessen or not affect attendance?

Do you have suggestions for specific composers and specific works?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: You Must Hear This: Violinist Hilary Hahn plays “Mercy” by Max Richter

March 26, 2018
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

One of the gems in the 27 encores that violinist Hilary Hahn commissioned from 27 different composers a couple of years ago is “Mercy” by the German-born British composer Max Richter.

Hahn has played here several times, mostly at the Wisconsin Union Theater but also with the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

Although Max Richter’s Minimalist music has not been played in Madison as far as The Ear remembers, you might already know his name from the popular recording of his take on Vivaldi in “The Four Seasons Recomposed” or his more ambitious and most current project “Sleep,” which provides music for eight and a half hours of sleeping.

But The Ear confesses he had not heard this moving miniature called “Mercy” until recently, even though Hahn recorded it along with the other 26 encores with pianist Cory Smithe.

He likes it.

And so apparently do a lot of other listeners.

So it is something that is well worth using five minutes of your time to sample.

Write your comments, positive or negative, below.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Grammy-winning Eighth Blackbird performs Saturday night at the Wisconsin Union Theater. Go early and don’t miss the half-hour student “warm-up” show

February 28, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Of course the main event at the Wisconsin Union Theater this Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. is the performance by the four-time Grammy-winning group Eighth Blackbird (below), which specializes in performing contemporary composers and new music.

Here is a link with more information –  videos, sound samples, reviews, the program and tickets — about the concert by Eighth Blackbird, which you can hear giving a Tiny Desk Concert for National Public Radio (NPR) in the YouTube video at the bottom.

https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/eighth-blackbird/

But if you can, go to the concert early.

That’s because The Ear wants to give a loud shout-out to the Wisconsin Union Theater for offering a pre-concert concert of student players at 7 p.m. (There is also a free pre-concert lecture by conductor Randal Swiggum at 6 p.m.)

The students play Bach, Vivaldi, folk music and more. They set the mood and get you ready, kind of like the warm-up band at a rock concert. They also restore your faith in the future of classical music.

This time the young performers will be the Suzuki Sonora Strings of Madison.

They are fun, impressive and inspiring. The Ear remembers hearing violin virtuoso Hilary Hahn praise the Suzuki Sonora Strings and the Suzuki method for starting her on her own career. (Hahn, far right in the front, is seen below with the students.)

And below is a statement provided by Esty Dinur,  the director of marketing for the Wisconsin Union Theater, about why they feature the students — an idea that The Ear praises highly because he thinks it expands and rewards the audience as well as the students.

Music education needs more of this kind of public visibility that doesn’t isolate the young learners and performers but instead integrates them into the mainstream classical music scene.

Here is the statement by Dinur:

“We have so far hosted two groups of young musicians, the Suzuki Sonora Strings and the group known previously as Madison Music Makers and currently as the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) Music Makers.

“The Sonora Strings (below, seen from the balcony) performed before the concerts by Hilary Hahn in the 2015-2016 season and Joshua Bell in the 2016-2017 season. They will be performing again this Saturday ahead of the concert by Eighth Blackbird.

“WYSO Music Makers (below) performed before last season’s Los Angeles Guitar Quartet (and I learned that one of the LAGQ musicians played with them—from behind the shell!). We may add other young musicians in the future.

“We view them as the artists, teachers, audience members and advocates of the future, the people who will continue loving and spreading the love of classical and other music.

“As such, we’re excited to have the ability to provide them with experiences by world-class musicians in a world-class venue.

“It is always wonderful to see them working so hard on stage, being serious and intent and excited. It is also wonderful to see their parents and families derive such pleasure and justified pride for the accomplishments of their kids.

“We are also delighted to be able to present groups that are more diverse than the usual classical music crowd. The future promises to be significantly more diverse than the present. It’s nice to be able to bring that future onto our stage and our audience right now.

“Reactions from all quarters have been great. The kids, their teachers and their families are all very appreciative of the opportunity. So far, I’ve heard nothing but good feedback from the audience which seems to enjoy both watching and listening to the youngsters and to appreciate the intent behind their performances.

“Finally, these shows may be taxing at times for our staff but they’re happy to shoulder the challenges in order to participate in this important work.”


Classical music: Here are memorable local concerts in 2016 from critic John W. Barker and The Ear. What ones would you add?

January 4, 2017
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ALERT: The FREE Friday Noon Musicales at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, resume this week after a break for Christmas, New Year’s and other holidays. This Friday, from 12:15 to 1 p.m., pianist Olivia Musat will perform music by Olivier Messiaen, Isaac Albeniz and Paul Constantinesco.

By Jacob Stockinger

It seems a tradition throughout the media to offer a roundup of the Year’s Best with a local slant.

The Ear already offered a national and international roundup. Here is a link to that, especially to the surprisingly rich roundup that he unexpectedly found on Wikipedia:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/01/02/classical-music-wikipedia-and-wfmt-in-chicago-offer-a-review-of-classical-music-of-2016-that-includes-important-performances-new-music-and-deaths/

For a more local perspective, The Ear trusts and generally agrees with critic John W. Barker (below), who writes frequently for this blog and more often for Isthmus.

John-Barker

Here is a link to Barker’s list of memorable concerts in the Madison area, Because Isthmus mixes classical with other genres like pop, folk and jazz, you have to scroll down to “Classical cornucopia”:

http://isthmus.com/music/year-in-music-2016/

Although I agree with all the concerts that Barker mentions, he left out some that The Ear really loved. One was the absolutely riveting and moving performance in November by the Madison Symphony Orchestra under John DeMain of the momentous Fifth Symphony by Dmitri Shostakovich.

For example just about everything that the Pro Arte Quartet does at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music is first-rate and memorable, whether they play in Mills Hall or on “Sunday Afternoon Live From the Chazen Museum of Art.”

But this past fall, a free noontime concert by the Pro Arte with legendary pianist Leon Fleisher especially stood out. Together (below), they performed the Piano Quintet in F Minor by Johannes Brahms – an unquestionable masterpiece in an unforgettable performance.

leon-fleisher-and-pro-arte-quartet-2016

The Ear would also add two events, both violin recitals, at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

Last spring Hilary Hahn (below top, in a photo by Peter Miller) turned in a stunningly superb recital. Then this fall, superstar Joshua Bell (below bottom) did the same. Both artists displayed terrific musicality combined with terrific virtuosity in generous and first-rate, ambitious programs.

Hilary Hahn 2016 CR Peter Miller

joshua-bell-2016

He would add several summer concerts by the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, especially the sizzling dueling violin concert (below) where the BDDS interspersed “The Four Seasons” buy Antonio Vivaldi with “The Four Seasons in Buenos Aires” by Astor Piazzolla.

axel-strauss-bdds-2016-piazzolla

The Ear would also add an experimental concert at which UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor (below) unveiled his reworked two-keyboard “Hyperpiano.” While the concert, which featured the “Goldberg” Variations by Johann Sebastian Bach, wasn’t successful musically, it certainly was intriguing, unusual and highly memorable, even with imperfect digital technology.

Hyperpiano stage

And The Ear also recalls a fine concert by the Rhapsodie Quartet (below) of the Madison Symphony Orchestra at the Overture Center.

Rhapsodie Quartet MSO Greg Anderson

And let’s not forget the University Opera’s production of “Falstaff” by Giuseppe Verdi that was impressively and successfully updated to Hollywood by director David Ronis.

uw-falstaff-benjamin-schultz-left-paul-rowe-and-jiabao-zhang

The Ear is sure there are more memorable concerts that escape him right now. Madison just features so much wonderful music-making in the course of a year.

Moreover, The Ear is also sure you have your favorites – whether they are individual plays; small chamber music groups such as duos, string quartets and piano trios; larger ensembles like the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Union Theater; or entire events like the UW Brass Festival.

I am sure that fans of the innovative percussion group Clocks in Motion and the acclaimed Madison Choral Project have a concert or two to nominate.

So please use the COMMENT section to tell us what were your most memorable classical concerts in Madison during 2016.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The accomplished and mostly amateur Middleton Community Orchestra will give its holiday concert of works by Mendelssohn, Dvorak and Brahms on Wednesday night, Dec. 21.

December 16, 2016
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

The acclaimed and mostly amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below top) will present its holiday concert on next Wednesday, Dec. 21, at 7:30 p.m. at the Middleton Performing Arts Center (below) that is attached to Middleton High School.

Middleton Community Orchestra press photo1

Middleton PAC1

General admission is $15. Students are admitted free of charge. Tickets are available at the door and at Willy St. Coop West. For more information, call (608) 212-8690.

The box office opens at 7 p.m.

The husband-and-wife team of conductor Kyle Knox (below top) and violinist Naha Greenholtz (below bottom), will be the featured performers. Knox is a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music and Greenholtz is the concertmaster of the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

kyle-knox-2016

naha

The program includes selected “Slavonic Dances” by Antonin Dvorak; the popular Violin Concerto in E minor by Felix Mendelssohn, with soloist Naha Greenholtz; and the Symphony No. 2 by Johannes Brahms. (You can hear the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, with Hilary Hahn, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

A free informal meet-and-greet reception follows the concert.

MCO June 2014 reception

For more information about the Middleton Community Orchestra, including its upcoming concerts and opportunities to join it and support it, go to:

http://www.middletoncommunityorchestra.org


Classical music: This is a very busy weekend for FREE choral music, band music, chamber music, a brass master class and a Berlioz colloquium at the UW-Madison.

December 1, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

This is the time of the academic year, the end of a semester, when performers and venues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music really get a workout.

Take this weekend and especially this coming Sunday, which features seven events.

There will be two popular Winter Choral Concerts at Luther Memorial Church, 1026 University Avenue (below, in  2014) plus performances by the Concert Band and University Bands and a couple of recitals by students. Mills Hall, Morphy Hall and Music Hall will all be in use.

Here is a link to the full Sunday schedule with information about the many concerts, but which, unfortunately, does NOT include programs for the choral concerts and a band concert:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/events/2016-12-04/

UW Winter Concert 2014

This Friday and Saturday are also busy, though less so.

FRIDAY

At 4 p.m. in Room 2441 of the Mosse Humanities Building is a FREE public colloquium about the pioneering Romantic French composer Hector Berlioz (below).

berlioz

Here is a description by the presenter, Professor Francesca Brittan of Case Western Reserve University:

“Against Melody: Neology, Revolution, and Berliozian Fantasy.”

“Complaints levied against Hector Berlioz’s music during his lifetime (and after) were many: deafening, terrifying, “too literary,” “too imitative.” But by far the most pervasive anxiety voiced by critics revolved around Berlioz’s illegibility. In particular, his music was ungrammatical, failing to adhere to the rules of syntax, the tenets of “proper” melody, and the laws of rhythm.

“These were not just idle or irritated complaints but urgent ones, linked by 19th-century critics to fears of social unraveling and even revolutionary violence. Berlioz’s musico-linguistic perversion, as one reviewer put it, was tantamount to Jacobinism. This strand of the criticism began in earnest with the “Symphonie fantastique,” a work that usually claims our attention for its orchestrational innovations and autobiographical resonances.

“In this talk, I redirect attention to the symphony’s syntax, arguing that melodic-linguistic deformation was at the heart of the work’s radicalism. I link Berlioz’s notions of “natural” grammar (borrowed in part from Victor Hugo) to notions of “natural” sound, and the “natural” rights of man. More broadly, I examine relationships among grammar, revolution, and 19th-century fantasy, between musical neology and the Berliozian imaginary.”

The event is funded by the University Lectures Anonymous Fund.

For more about Francesca Brittan (below) go to:

http://music.case.edu/faculty/francesca-brittan/

francesca-brittan

At 6:30 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall, a student brass quintet will perform a FREE concert of music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Malcolm Arnold, Kevin McKee and Victor Ewald. Performers are Nicole Gray, Brandi Pease, Kirsten Haukness, Hayden Victor and Michael Madden.

At 8 p.m. in Mills Hall is a FREE public master class with David Wakefield (below), a former member of the American Brass Quintet who now teaches at The Hartt School. Sorry, no program of works to be played.

david-wakefield

At 8:30 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall is a FREE graduate student concert of chamber music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Rayna Slavova is a second-year Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA) student in collaborative piano, studying with professor Martha Fischer.

The all-Mozart program includes the Violin Sonata in F, K. 376, with Biffa Kwok, violin (an excerpt, played by Hilary Hahn, can be heard in the YouTube video at the bottom); the Piano Duo Sonata in C, K 521, with Alberto Pena, piano; and the Piano Quintet in E flat, K 452, with Juliana Mesa, bassoon, Kai-Ju Ho, clarinet, and Dafydd Bevil, horn.

Mozart old 1782

SATURDAY
At 4 p.m. in Mills Hall, the University Strings – made up of talented non-music majors — will play a FREE concert. Sorry, no news about the program.

At 4 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall is a FREE Fall concert by the Flute Studio at the UW-Madison. Sorry, no word about the program or players.

At 8:30 p.m. in Morphy Recital in a FREE recital by Seth Bixler who is a senior violinist studying with Professor Soh-Hyun Altino. He will perform works by Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Peter Tchaikovsky and Eugene Ysaye.


Classical music: Which violin concertos have the hardest openings? You may be surprised

September 18, 2016
9 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Recently The Ear stumbled upon a fascinating story, on a blog by Nathan Cole, about famous violin concertos.

It was NOT about the Top 10 Best Violin Concertos ranked in order.

It was NOT about the Top 10 Most Difficult Violin Concertos.

It was simply about the most difficult openings of violin concertos – about what happens when the violinist walks on stage and starts up along with the orchestra or before it or after it.

It uses the Olympics’ sports competitions as a model and awards degrees of difficulty along with explanations for the scoring.

(For a close to simultaneous start by orchestra and soloist, listen to American violinist Hillary Hahn, who played a recital last spring at the Wisconsin Union Theater, and conductor Paavo Jarvi in the opening of the popular Violin Concerto in E Minor by Felix Mendelssohn in the YouTube video at the bottom. It has over 8 million hits and it is very relevant to the story.)

stradivari-solomon-ex-lambert

The story reminds The Ear of famous literary critic Frank Kermode’s classic book “The Sense of an Ending” — only now it would be “The Sense of a Beginning,” a subject the late literary critic, cultural analyst and Palestinian activist Edward Said wrote about in his book “Beginnings: Intention and Method.”

The musical discussion features accessible and informative analysis by an accomplished violinist as well as terrific audio-visual clips of each concerto and the openings in question.

It’s a long piece – good for weekend reading, perhaps because it can be done in different segments at different times.

But even if you read only a part of it, it certainly imparts a sense of the challenges that a soloist faces. You vicariously experience the thrill and intimidation of walking out on stage and starting to play.

And it enhances your appreciation of some famous violin concertos and of what it takes to pull them off in live performance.

Like The Ear, you will come away with a new appreciation of the challenges that any concerto soloist – violinist, pianist, cellist, brass player, wind player, whatever — faces.

Here is a link:

http://www.violinist.com/blog/ncole78/20169/19726/

The Ear also hopes the website violinist.com follows up with a listing or ranking of the most difficult ENDINGS of violin concertos and a discussion of what makes them so difficult.

In the meantime, The Ears asks:

Do violinists out there agree or disagree with the scoring and reasons?

Do they care to leave a comment one way or the other?

Do they have other candidates – say, Baroque concertos by Antonio Vivaldi or Johann Sebastian Bach — to rank for the difficult of starting?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music education: Suzuki Strings of Madison performs a FREE 25th anniversary spring concert this Sunday afternoon.

May 14, 2016
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following note of public interest about an event that deserves widespread support:

Suzuki Strings of Madison (below) will presents its 25th anniversary spring concert at 2:30 p.m. this Sunday, May 15.

Suzuki students served as the pre-concert “warm-up band” for violinist Hilary Hahn at her recent recital at the Wisconsin Union Theater. Hahn, herself a Suzuki alumna, credited the method with her early start on her career.

Suzuki Strings of Madison MMM 2014

The concert will take place at the Middleton Performing Arts Center (below), 2100 Bristol Street, which is attached to Middleton High School.

Middleton PAC2

Middleton PAC1

The concert is open to the public FREE of charge and will feature violin students from three years of age through Sonora, the teenage touring ensemble.

The music will include selections from the Suzuki repertoire as well as several classical ensemble pieces.

ALL FORMER SUZUKI STRINGS OF MADISON STUDENTS ARE INVITED TO JOIN ON STAGE TO PLAY IN THE CONCERT.

Everyone is invited to a reception after the concert.

Suzuki Strings of Madison has been providing complete, quality music education through the Suzuki Method to children in the Madison area for 25 years.

The program offers private lessons, music reading and theory training, a mixed string ensemble and two touring ensembles.

The Suzuki approach deals with much more than teaching a child how to play an instrument. It seeks to develop the whole child, to help unfold his or her natural potential to learn, and to find the joy that comes through making music. (The Suzuki Method is explained in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

For more information visit www.suzukistringsofmadison.org.


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